Before the preseason officially began, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski thought Amile Jefferson could be the ideal player to blend with Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker.
“To me, he may complement those two guys better than anyone on our team,” Krzyzewski said on September 27th.
With ACC play entering its second half, Krzyzewski’s original thought is coming to fruition. After an early struggle to find his way (something that could be said about the Blue Devils as a whole), Jefferson has emerged as a reliable rebounder, helping to mitigate Duke’s most obvious weakness.
In the 10 ACC games, Jefferson has led Duke in four of them (Parker led the other 6), and ranks fifth overall in conference play with an average of 8.2 rebounds per game (Notre Dame’s Gerrick Sherman is first with 8.5).
Jefferson’s next chance to boost his average comes Saturday night, when No. 11 Duke (18-5, 7-3 ACC) travels to face Boston College (6-15, 2-7) at 6 p.m.
Krzyzewski pointed to Dec. 19 against UCLA as the moment Jefferson began to find his niche. That was in the middle of an eight-game stretch of coming off the bench, which began after he and Rasheed Sulaimon lost their starting jobs in the wake of a near-disaster, the 91-90 win over Vermont on Nov. 24.
That game brought on the first major philosophical shift in the season: sacrifice two offensive options in an attempt to shore up the defense. Jefferson would benefit more from the second shift, which came after the Jan. 11, 72-59 loss at Clemson.
After that game, Krzyzewski decided the team would be better suited with a deeper rotation, allowing guys to play at a maximum pace for short stints, before a wave of substitutions replaced them. Jefferson posted his first career double-double in the first game with the expanded bench, scoring 10 points and grabbing 15 rebounds as the Blue Devils gave Virginia their only loss in ACC play .
His second career double-double came four games later, at Pittsburgh, with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
“Me, I’m just fitting in,” Jefferson said after the win against the Panthers. “We’re playing at a sprint pace right now. Guys aren’t holding anything back or worrying about getting tired. Right now, we’re all out, we’re all Duke and we’re playing great.” et al
That has continued through the overtime loss at Syracuse and the home thrashing of Wake Forest. Jefferson clearly had a light bulb moment when it comes to rebounding, as he is better at anticipating where his teammates’ misses will bounce.
His 15.5 offensive rebound percentage ranks in the top 25 nationally. Most of his shots come from close-range put-backs; Jefferson’s 130.7 offensive efficiency rating is in the top 40 nationally.
Improvements like Jefferson’s will have a major impact on how long Duke plays into March and April and how close the Blue Devils come to fulfilling the sky-high preseason expectations.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley